02 November 2014

Those Darn Negative Ads; or, If You Can’t Say Something Nice, You’re on the Right Track.

Last week, the Times-West Virginian (the local paper) ran its regular “man in the street” feature. The question was, “Do you pay attention to negative political ads?”

Three of the respondents said no, they didn’t. One guy said he doesn’t pay attention to any political ads.  And one lady said she votes against anyone who runs a negative ad.

If only it were that easy.

To say the least, this was not a valid statistical sampling of this community. Nor was it a valid sample of any community.

The reason the politicians use negative ads is simple: They work.

We have a very weak law of libel in the United States. The First Amendment is so strong that it takes a ton of libel to overcoming it. And for political ads, all bets are (nearly) off. Against a political figure, you can say safely say almost anything with a straight face.

A good example is how Minnesota Sen. Wellstone was treated in his 2002 reelection campaign. Opponents ran ads that mischaracterized some of the senator's  procedure votes.  The opponents said that the Senator wanted to tax all dead people and that he really disliked veterans.  But the ads didn’t mention that these were procedural votes which passed the Senate with scarcely a dissent.  They had nothing to do with any senator’s ultimate opinion.  All Wellstone could was try to ineffectively correct the record.  (Sen. Wellstone died in a plane crash two weeks before the election. His opponent, Norm Coleman,won.)

Peoples fear reactions are much stronger than their reactions to positive things. Wellstone's attempt to limit the damage had nothing like the power of good negative ad.

One particularly nasty campaign is the West Virginia race over the open seat of Sen. Rockefeller.  The Democratic Secretary of State has been attacked because she endorsed Obama in 2008 (Who was she supposed to endorse?) and because she doesn’t strongly (enough) support coal interests. At the same time, she has attacked her Republican opponent because her husband got a job with an investment bank, presumably the because the Republican candidate (who is in Congress) made some sort of secret deal. 

Neither candidate can hope to effectively set the record straight. Their response? – Run more negative ads.

We got three ads in the morning mail yesterday.  Each is an 8 x 10, glossy paper, printed on both sides.  All told, they cost about $1 each to deliver.

One is screed which blames all Democrats for the EPA’s war on coal (and there indeed a war), West Virginia’s “failed educational system” (the Mountain State is consistently in the bottom five), some sort of failure in funding the emergency services (beats me what they’re talking about) and that Obamacare has reduced the number of folks who are covered by insurance.   (I'm not sure, but I kinda doubt it.)  It is produced by “Go West Virginia Inc.”   It’s address is a PO Box in the pleasant little town of Elkins, Randolph County. It is not incorporated in West Virginia. So we know nothing about it.  We have no idea whose money paid for it.

The second is from “Grow West Virginia Inc.”  Oddly, they use the same post office box as “Go West Virginia.”  It accuses an incumbent State Senator for supporting ISIS (!!), mandating Obamacare (the Congress didn’t leave much choice) and for having voted for Cap & Trade.  Cap & Trade must be bad if it’s mentioned in the same breath as supporting ISIS.  Not one in 100 people understand it. I sure don’t.   And Grow West Virginia is equally as obscure as Go West Virginia.     

Third, surprisingly, is one paid for by an actual campaign. This accuses the same State Senator for having “[taken] money away from seniors[‘] programs to line casino investors['] pockets.”   There is no doubt a story there.  By the way, I am pretty annoyed that the campaign bought a list which identified me as a “senior.”

There are 3 items that are supposed to scare me.  What to do?

To be brutally frank, I don’t expect people to do jack about it. The politicians count on the public to accept this shit.  So far, they are right.  People believe all kinds of unbelievable things. People take an outfit like Go/Grow West Virginia as some kind of public service group.  The public is so used to lying that they don’t hold it against anyone.  Sure, money is king in politics.  

But just as there have to be buyers of votes, there have to be people willing to sell.

Are we willing to sell our votes for a lie?  It might be a good idea to question the “factual” basis for a political ad, even one from someone who doesn’t hide behind the Association for Mom & Apple Pie.  

Also, it might be a good idea to assume that anything produced by little groups with an unknown yet nice name has no relation to reality.  That is, they are lies.

And finally, we might hold politicians responsible for what their campaign does.  If s/he lies, s/he proves that s/he is willing to lie for personal gain.  If they both lie, vote for some minor party or write someone in.  

And if after a few campaigns, negative ads have quit working, at least they’ll try some other way to lie.  

In light of the Citizens United decision, we cannot control political propaganda.  It might not be a good idea to try to control it.  But let’s quit selling our votes so damned cheap. It’s embarrassing.

Note to candidates:

Your signs spread everywhere are a legitimate part of the campaign.  That’s until 7:30 PM on Election Day.  Then they are litter, junk and an eyesore.  I admit, they do made great makeshift target holders on a firing range.

No comments: